Monday, November 14, 2016

Trump's Arab world challenge - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Obama has left Trump a chaotic Middle East, where the U.S.'s role has been continuously eroded and has taken a back seat to Russia.

The unprecedented slump in the United States' position in the Middle East during President Barack Obama's eight-year term was such that the only way is up. This is perhaps the only bright spot President-elect Donald Trump can hold on to when examining the complex regional realities ahead of formulating new Middle East policies. 

The majority of Middle East leaders welcomed Trump's election. Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Syria, all hope to turn over a new leaf in their relations with the American administration, and it seems they would also welcome different policies, they kind that would restore Washington's active involvement in the region. 

When Obama took office in 2008, the Bush administration left him a stable Middle East, where the U.S. was a key player -- the only player, to be honest.

President George W. Bush's fight against the axis of evil stretching from Tehran to Damascus and involving Hezbollah and Hamas, may not have yielded the desired results, but it generated considerable deterrence opposite Iran and its allies, and stopped them from threatening Washington's allies in the region.

Obama has left Trump a chaotic Middle East, where the U.S.'s role has been continuously eroded and has taken a back seat to Russia. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made Iran a key partner in his efforts to cement Moscow's foothold in the region, and in exchange, Tehran has been given free rein in areas Putin cannot reach. The ones paying the price for this regional shift are, naturally, Washington's allies.

Upon taking office, Obama set out to win over the hearts and minds of the Arab public, and chose to do to so by turning his back on Arab rulers, as well as on Israel. Simultaneously, Obama sought to appease U.S. enemies in the Middle East, primarily Iran, in an effort to reach an understanding that would guarantee his administration smooth regional sailing. 

Once the Arab Spring erupted in full force, Obama distanced himself from the region, focusing only on promoting the nuclear deal with Iran, despite knowing it will eventually enable Iran to realize its nuclear ambitions. The only other regional issue to garner his interest was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- an issue that barely holds any regional significance anymore -- but even here, his involvement was little more than lip service. 

Trump has inherited a region where crises may appear to be contained locally, with little to no bearing on American interests, but in the long run, these issues could prove dangerous and have far-reaching implications.

While Trump has the option of carrying on with Obama's policies in the Middle East, the president-elect will have to deal with several dilemmas. The first question involves the ramifications of the U.S.'s weakness in the Middle East, especially opposite Russia, in respect to American interests in other areas, such as Eastern Europe or central and southeastern Asia. The second issue is the question of whether the policy of noninterference at any cost does indeed spare American soldiers' lives as well as the lives of the people of the region, or whether the opposite true, and a more aggressive policy would meet the challenges U.S. interests in the region are facing.

Trump could leave Russia and Iran to clobber Islamic State and the Syrian rebels, and effectively establish a joint Iranian-Russian hegemony in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. He could ignore the plight of Egypt and Saudi Arabia and push them into Russia's or Iran's arms. In one respect, however, Trump should adopt Putin's conclusions: to fight against radical Islam and undermine Iran's regional aspirations on Middle East soil, not U.S. soil.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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